Looking Beyond the Product to the Purpose: MS Office 365 Groups

Need a conversation starter? How about the Mac vs PC? IPhone vs Galaxy? Facebook vs Twitter? Beach vs Mountains? Clinton vs Trump? Nothing better to while away a few hours than an animated conversation and debate about why I might prefer one product over another. We all know in the end that despite extensive reported analyses and feature lists and the like, our choices are likely deeper than a simple feature by feature trade-off. It’s much subtler than that. An Apple zealot is aligning with Apple’s stated core purpose; its user experience mantra. People will keep lining up outside Apple stores as long as Apple can sustain its mantra. A swipe instead of a click may not seem much, but for an Apple zealot it reinforces their strong preferences to buy Apple.

These were the thoughts going through my mind as I took the deep dive to try and understand what Microsoft’s Office 365 Groups was really all about. Like most Yammer followers I fear the day when Yammer groups might be replaced by some generic “one size fits all” group structure. Of course Microsoft are quick to point out that O365 Groups are not a product but a “Groups Service”. I then spent over an hour listening to a Benjamin Niaulin more in depth webinar on the ‘product’. Benjamin used slightly more colourful terminology like a ‘fabric’ or ‘experience’ to describe O365 Groups. Yes, it appears like the ultimate ‘plug and play’ for groups. And like Benjamin, I believe there is a lot of positives to be said about the O365 Groups vision, if indeed Microsoft are able to get the ‘plumbing’ right. But I was still left with one nagging concern. As a long term Yammer supporter I believed in the purpose of the founders. I could forgive some deficiencies (I can’t edit a post I made…really?) because I felt that our purposes were aligned and therefore on the whole, the pluses would far outweigh the minuses. O365 Groups felt like Head Office had come to invade my world for the ‘greater good’. While I’m fully supportive of the ‘greater good’; could we just ensure that no ‘babies are thrown out with the bath water here?’.

Benjamin Niaulin did a great job of promoting the O365 Groups’ ‘Experience’ over the underlying products, imploring us to think in terms of user experience rather than Yammer, Sharepoint, Outlook, Skype etc.; which brings me to the point about ‘purpose over product’. Our experiences are largely driven by purpose, which is also impacted, but not totally directed, by our work roles. In our work analysing organisational networks  we regularly see collaboration patterns following the formal organisational structures. This reinforces to us that work is being conducted as designed by the organisation. However, it’s far from black and white. We also just as regularly see informal patterns of collaboration that are utterly invisible to the senior management. Is this non-compliance? Sometimes it is. More regularly though, it’s simply people being people and improvising around the formal lines of business, to fulfil their needs and purposes.

So if O365 Groups is to fulfil the promise of a customisable user experience one must look below the product features of the underlying products, through to the core purpose of what that product was created for in the first place. With many of these product components now having been acquired by Microsoft, it is important to not lose what made these products attractive in the first place. With this in mind the O365 Groups’ ‘Experience’ can build on the strengths of these products, rather than what many of us fear; a compromise solution that will detract from the experiences that we have worked hard to achieve in the pre-O365 Groups world.

For me it would be as simple as sitting down with some lead users and developers of the underlying product suite and asking questions like (with my answers for Yammer as an example):

  1. What core principles do you think this product’s designers had when they first developed the product?”
    • Not a hard one. I believe ‘networking and community’ is the core theme
  2. “What are some core features that to you exemplify the core purpose?”
    • The ability for anyone in the organisation to create and self-manage a group/community, without management oversight, is a core feature for community.
  3. “What was the core business problem that you believe these designers had in mind?”
    • As evidenced by the post-acquisition activities of the Yammer founders, the ‘Unresponsive Organisation’ was a key business target
  4. “What current features/use cases have been added for convenience more so that reinforce the core purposes?”
    • I think some of the features to ‘compete’ with shorter term team collaboration options e.g. instant messaging (now gone anyway), high frequency email alerts (though can be controlled). Perhaps security is another; do we really need private groups in Yammer?
  5. “What are the 3 most important new core purpose features you would like to see irrespective of the Office 365 Groups charter?”
    • With a focus on reinforcing the core ‘networking and community’ purpose, I would like to see a stronger focus on facilitating deeper relationships in communities. Also it’s important that communities do not become siloes in their own right, so some visibility of interconnectedness (or otherwise) between groups/communities is important. Thirdly, perhaps extending the group admin features to cater for differing group/community leadership roles like conversation moderator, content manager, event organiser etc..

If we were to complete a similar exercise with leaders/developers of Team Sites, Outlook, One Drive, Skype I suspect we would find:

  • Non-overlapping core purposes. Office365 Groups needs to avoid any erosion in functionality that support core purposes.
  • Several non-core features of one product that are core features of another. These can comfortably be stripped away once the plumbing is complete to the alternative source, if and when needed.
  • A product roadmap that would build up the product peaks (core purpose), rather than fill up the valleys with compromised features.

office-blog

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